The Indian EXPRESS

HE Supreme Court is right in underlining the need for speedy sanction to prosecute public officials in corruption cases. The court was responding to a petition by Subramanian Swamy, who alleged “inordinate delay” by the prime minister’s office in responding to his petition on the 2G spectrum scam, and withholding sanction to prosecute the then telecom minister, A. Raja. The UPA argued that the PM was waiting for the CBI’s probe to be completed before granting this sanction, a view upheld by the Delhi high court, but now struck down by the Supreme Court, which has demanded a clear and brief timeline for such sanctions. The judgment is unambiguous that much public corruption carries on unchecked, secure in the knowledge that the legal process is arduous, and can be indefinitely deferred. And so, the Supreme Court has stated that the government can take no more than one month for legal opinion, and three months after that to decide on the sanction. After the four months pass, it will be assumed


SC wants a four-month deadline for govt to give sanction; what about the years of trial in a court?
that the sanction is granted. This ultimatum, that “sanction would be deemed to be granted if the competent authority fails to take a decision within a period of four months”, is the troubling underside of the judgment. Important as it is to minimise deliberate official inaction, it is equally unrealistic to mandate an automatic sanction within a few months — each case is different, and the time taken to weigh the decision is bound to be different too. The court, especially, should know the impracticality of imposing a deadline on these decisions, given its record of backlog despite the best intentions. With all due respect, judicial pendency arguably contributes to the corrupt getting away, as much as a laggardly bureaucracy does. If the government is to be handed a stopwatch to decide on matters of corruption, what stops the demand — and there has been such a demand in the Lokpal discourse — to ask for a deadline for courts to decide as well? The court’s sense of urgency is justifiable, not its suggestion to Parliament.

Stopwatch justice

Didi, don’t roll back
AMATA BANERJEE’S politics, in a word, could be called “populist”, in the absence of a well-formulated and well-enunciated agenda. In her last years in opposition, and now as chief minister of West Bengal, Banerjee has steadily positioned herself as “more left than the Left”. The Luddite politics of Singur, her stint as the most antireformist, statist railway minister in recent history, or her assault on FDI in retail, would bear testimony to that. Therefore, her government’s decision to cancel the extensive trade union rights of its employees comes as a break from both the chief minister’s consistent populism and lefter-than-Left political moulding. This decision is welcome, not merely because West Bengal would always have profited from a mellowing of its “cholchhe na, cholbe na” image and reality, but more so because there was something perverse about the 1981 grant of full trade union rights to state government employees by the Left Front government. That had engendered anytime, anywhere strikes by the government’s own employees, taking the state swiftly and steadily downhill. That 1981 clause, which Banerjee’s gov-


For once, Mamata does the right thing — by laying down work rules for her employees

ernment is planning to withdraw, went against all good sense. The proposed amendment to the state service rules, to cancel that original amendment, is ostensibly aimed at “disciplining” government employees and “reducing” political influence on them. It will not go down well with hardened and professional unions that know better than most how to bring state-funded industry and services, transport, state-aided schools and colleges as well as government hospitals to a complete suspension of activity with or without notice. While not de-recognising state employees’ unions, the reform will curb their disproportionate powers of blackmail and disruption by denying them the right to strike. The employees’ associations may have already threatened protests (there was already a general trade union strike planned for February 28), and the state government will take a lot of flak for the denial of “democratic rights”. But this is the moment for Mamata Banerjee to hold her nerve, and for her government to hold its ground. If the state employees can be made to change their work and political culture, a lot else can be reformed in Bengal.

HE “Right to Reject” proposals are again gaining ground in discussion. But there is something extravagant about the claims being made. While the proposal may not do too much harm, it is not at all clear it does much good. It is another instance of reform debates taking recourse to wishful thinking. There are at least three versions of the right to reject on offer. The mildest version, proposed in the Election Commission’s letter to the PM, is an updated version for Rule 49 of the Conduct of Election Rules. Under this, voters can choose to have their abstention registered. Under current procedures, this abstention is not secret. The idea is simply to give voters a “none of the above” option. This has expressive value and is least disruptive. But it will not have any bearing on the outcome of an election. The other two proposals are more consequential. In one version, if more than 50 per cent of the electors choose a “none of the above” option, the election will have to be held again with a new roster of candidates. In another version, the election will be re-held if the number choosing “none of the above” option exceeds the number of votes garnered by the leading candidate. Then there are minor variations on the prohibitions the rejected candidates have to suffer. It is not entirely clear what problem this is meant to solve. In discussions, one argument put forward is that it will lead to fewer criminals in politics. The logic for this supposition is not entirely clear. But a fair response to the worry about criminals in politics is this: if we are serious about removing criminals in politics, we need to get serious about the criminal justice system. Final convictions have to be secured in a reasonable amount of time. But to be a little more provocative, we need to ask why it is that in some cases people vote for so-called criminals? It is often because they provide services that often the state cannot - ranging from pro-


None of the above
This clamour for right to reject is a muddled response to electoral issues
tection, to a visible ability to get things done. Condemning the choices without grappling with the circumstances that lead voters to make the choices they do is a species of easy moralising. The second argument, expressed in Law Commission reports, is the concern that with plurality of candidates contesting, the winning candidate usually has a very low percentage of votes in their favour. If we could somehow require candidates to poll at least 50 per cent plus one vote, the system would be more representative. It would, so the argument goes, also diminish the role of caste etc., since every candidate would have to have broad-based appeal. But this argument is also sufficient to reject 50 plus one requirement. But we must get away from the idea that there is a set of election rules that does not generate its own externalities. Voting rules also have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Many well-intentioned reforms in places ranging from California to Israel have often produced worse outcomes. Tread cautiously. But it is not clear negative voting has helped anywhere. In the US, some states have experimented; Russia had it, and abolished it. One simple reason is that under the 50 per cent rule, casting a negative vote makes sense only if you are confident that half of all voters agree with you. The middle class may have more contempt for

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The issue of preferences is also not that straight-forward. Just because voters reject a set of candidates does not mean that a second set has enhanced their choice or produced something closer to the illusory idea of their real preferences.
too quick. First, if we really want a 50 per cent plus one rule, we need to openly discuss either runoffs, or Alternative Vote proposals, which the British just rejected. The Right to Reject has nothing to do with it. But we should also be cautious about the numerical fixation on 50 per cent plus. The claim that someone is our representative will always be endogenous to the rules of getting elected. Just because the rules require 50 per cent plus one, it does not necessarily mean that individual is more representative. It could mean other things as well. It could mean voters have had to compromise even more in making their choices. It could raise entry barriers into politics and cut down choices. This may not be politicians, but this is an extravagant assumption to make. There is also the curious paradox of expressing contempt for electoral choices, through the rhetoric of more choice. Ostensibly giving the right to reject gives voters greater choice: they have the choice to reject and express exasperation. But in reality the choice argument is more complicated. One rather subtle point about elections is the moral importance of the simultaneity and independence of voting. My expression of preferences should not depend upon knowledge about how others have voted; and it should be based on broadly the same possible information. Only then have votes got equal value. Administering a right to reject in a

way mimicking the simultaneity requirement is not going to be easy. Second, the issue of preferences is also not that straight-forward. Just because voters reject a set of candidates does not automatically mean that a second set has enhanced their choice or produced something closer to the illusory idea of their real preferences. Since you cannot test the transitivity of preferences along two different choice sets, it is a bit too quick to claim that the choices exercised on the second set are somehow more authentic than the first. One possibility with negative voting, particularly the third variant, is that it could penalise good candidates. At least now in campaigns, we discuss sops and promises, however illusory. But under negative voting there may be huge incentives on part of weaker candidates and parties to ensure good candidates get disqualified. Finally, since party structures remain important, the significance of getting rid of one set of candidates is not as clear as people suppose; the individual characteristics of MPs now matter less. We need better institutionalised parties more than negative voting. We need to discuss serious issues: party systems, election finance, decentralisation. We have created huge anomalies by aspiring for proportional outcomes out of a first past the post system. But the clamour for negative voting is distraction. I may not happen to agree with much of what goes on. But at some level I have to acknowledge that my arguments have lost. Having lost, I ought not to blame the rules, or construct the voters as helpless victims of bad rules. Politics is the slow boring of hard boards, as Max Weber said. But India’s privileged, having failed to do the requisite manual labour of politics, and elicit trust, now place excessive faith in new rules. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

Fast track
Supreme Court to the government to act fast on sanctioning or rejecting action on applications for prosecuting allegedly corrupt public servants was overdue (‘Pulling up PMO for sitting on Raja plea, Supreme Court calls for faster sanction’, IE, February 1). A similar ruling in the case of mercy applications made to the president will also be welcome. If the SC cannot make a recommendation to that effect to the president, it may advise the government to do the same within a short time-frame. — Sadashiv S. Apte Pune
■ THE SC judgment is a landmark one but asking Parliament to amend the existing law to ensure that the sanction to prosecute a public servant is given within four months is naive. Any such bill will meet with the same fate as the Lokpal bill. Besides, even if the permission for prosecution is given fast, what prevents the investigating agencies from delaying the filing of charges to save those in power? Unless the investigating agencies are free of government interference and there is no inordinate delay in the judicial process, corrupt public servants will never be punished in this country. — S. Venkataraman Mumbai ■ THE directive given by the

Letters to the

Lacking the sting



Exaggerated numbers are thrown across our food security debate
holds stop working and agriculture gets a lethal blow. Very experienced economists and political leaders give the story great credibility. Unlike the discussion of “reforms”, where difficulties and roadblocks are underlined in implementing government policies, here there are no shades of grey. Reality will unfold differently. The legislation will take time. States which entitle more in law, and parties which represent them, perhaps knowing that in fact benefits are less, will playact at championing the underwill be approved with theoretical numbers. There is a more compelling fallacy in the big numbers. Per capita rations are multiplied by eligible families. But grain preferences are going down. Even poor households in India consume more nongrains as their income goes up. The income elasticities for grain are less than a fifth of 1 per cent and those for nongrains are between 1 and 2 per cent for poor families. If you take that into account, grain off-take will be much lower than talked about. I asked an covered themselves in glory, particularly the fast-growing and high-income ones, on these counts. It is not for nothing that in most countries this kind of legislation has a strong federal or central government imprint. In our country, the most im portant priority is being undermined. This is leakage to plug. It won’t cost much but is important. The argument that labour for agriculture will be a stumbling block to growth is overdone. There is overwhelming historical evidence that rising agricultural wages lead to technological progress in agriculture, with much better use of land and other scarce resources. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, very well informed on agriculture, was right in highlighting that a few months ago and pointing out that decentralised mechanisation, not just tractors and so on, was the answer. One is badly advised to raise the shortage issue now. All in all, a better-fed labour force will be an asset and it is high time we made a beginning. The writer, a former Union minister, is chairman, Institute of Rural Management, Anand

Some ground realities

They all love a tribal
T an Adivasi Mela organised by Orissa’s SC/ST department in the state capital, about 250 tribals also became exhibits. Sitting in mock huts at the fair, they became, for about Rs 100 a day, faces of the state’s tribal programme. In the over 150 stalls, 29 housed aborigines picked from their villages by the government. Some were evidently ill at ease; others like Sada Juanga who was in the booth showcasing his tribe, the Juangas, pointed to the fallacy of some of the government’s claims: he comes from a village in Keonjhar where there is no electricity, yet he has become the chosen one in Bhubaneswar, the selection having been made by the local Integrated Tribal Development Agency. The tribals have again become easy mascots. Two years ago, the battle against Vedanta was fought in the name of, among others, the


First, to block development in their habitat and then to pose as exhibits for tourists
Kutia Kondhs who live in the foothills of Niyamgiri. What is appalling is that the powers that can resist development in the name of protecting tribal habitat, would also find it convenient to turn the very same people into showpieces. That too, ironically, often of progress that has not reached them still. It should be a tribal’s choice to decide whether she should be part of a government programme or not — whether in her village or in the state capital. But this instance of adivasi-as-exhibit, coming after the circulation of a video of dancing Jarawa women in the Andamans, shows how little-thought-out and even contradictory our tribal policies are and how insensitive the state can be to their concerns and dignity while framing programmes or taking steps, in segregating or mainstreaming as the case may be.

HE time has come to supplement the employment guarantee scheme with a food security strategy. And if we don’t do it now, we probably will not do so for a long time. As the economist Gunnar Myrdal argued, a lot of “scientific” economic and social reasoning is thinly disguised value prejudices and it is, in important matters, more honest and in fact necessary to explicate your values. Having said that, the debate on food security is taking strange turns, both from critics and proponents. The critics build up cataclysmic scenarios. Seventyfive per cent of the rural population and 25 per cent of the urban population start getting 3 kg of foodgrains and possibly 7 kg as soon as the curtain rises. This gets into astronomical quantities of foodgrain and money. The really bizarre number is a mechanically calculated 100 million tonnes. More than 60 million tonnes is a figure normally thrown about. The thousands of crores the budget will get depend on which end of the quantity scale you are — it is, of course, very high. The economy, already in deceleration, goes into a tailspin. Also, already benefiting from an employment guarantee, rural labour house-

The argument that labour for agriculture will be a stumbling block to growth is overdone.
dog. Others will take the cue from “reformers” and ask for cash transfers. All this will take time. More importantly, the reality is that, even in states with universal coverage of PDS and subsidised grain — which is all that the present food security bill is about — the actual offtake is normally not more than 40 per cent, if deficit and surplus states are taken into account. In deficit states, this could be higher by half and in surplus states, similarly lower. Our finance ministry is conservative and it is extremely unlikely that the expenditures economist friend who wrote a report on this and he said he used NSS estimates, but not behavioural trends. Not more than two-fifths of the eligible families with the kind of numbers talked about will actually go to the PDS. In fact, this leads to a major hiccup. The “special groups” in the legislation, poor, lactating mothers, the poor girl child, households headed by women and so on, are left to the states. I know that economists who are critical want to federalise the legislation in the name of “efficiency”, but the states have not

■ THIS refers to ‘IIT JEE to go...’ (IE, January 31). The engineering entrance benchmarks are being reset by replacing the entrance tests with well-designed aptitude tests. In addition, IITs also need to be reinvented, with a bent towards research. Technological advancement fuels economic growth. We need premier institutions to help us march towards new horizons. For the IITs, the path must veer from the lures of global business into research, to seek exciting frontiers of the future. — R. Narayanan Ghaziabad

Research in motion

■ IT IS an innovative step by the HRD ministry to have a common test for all Central engineering institutes. But giving 40 per cent weightage to Class XII marks will not create a level-playing field. It will put a lot of pressure on students like those who are in state boards where 90 per cent marks are a rarity. A re-think is required in this latest decision. — Bal Govind Noida

Tough test

Sticky wicket

■ IT IS time Indian cricket


US public debt, by 2022, would be almost 100 per cent of GDP
The dumb path would avoid the above dangers in a stupid way. It would follow current law, not current policy. Thus, all the Bush tax cuts would expire at the end of this year. The alternative minimum tax would hit a growing number of taxpayers... The smart path would deal with the debt in a way that is gradual, balanced between spending cuts and revenue increases and intelligently targeted rather than the current law’s bludgeon. This is the path outlined by debt reduction commissions such as Simpson-Bowles. Unfortunately, it is not the subject of the current debate. President Obama has called for a balanced solution but has neither proposed serious tax reform nor adequately outlined the ways in which he would get entitlement spending, particularly Medicare, under control. From a leader in ‘The Washington Post’

The dangerous path on debt

Helen Keller

Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought!

EBT projections released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office illustrate three fiscal paths: dangerous, dumb and smart. Dangerous is the path we seem to be headed for: leaving in place all or most of the Bush tax cuts; patching the alternative minimum tax and averting cuts in Medicare reimbursements for physicians; and suspending the automatic spending reductions triggered by the failure of the debt reduction supercommittee. Under this path, by 2022 public debt would be nearly 100 per cent of the gross domestic product, a level not seen since just after World War II. This is the likely scenario because the two parties largely agree on the biggest component of the additional debt — extending the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year. It is the most perilous because the economy cannot shoulder a debt of that magnitude without potentially catastrophic consequences.


answered some tough questions. What kind of world champions fail to win a single match outside their home pitches? They lost to the English team in all three formats of the game. Now, the Aussies are beating them. How shameful that India have not been able to even draw a single Test match in Australia. A nightmare for every team under the guidance of Gary Kirsten, India fell like nine pins under Duncan Fletcher’s watch. Cricket lovers are not so forgiving. Losing is part of the game, but not explaining the loss is not cricket. — Sajan Gupta Jammu